Series on Suns offensive and defensive proficiency in first month of 2013-14 season
The Phoenix Suns have had great success so far this season on the defensive end, molding 10 new players into a cohesive unit that boasts a Top 10 defense. At the same time, they run a very efficient offense heavy on dunks, layups and threes.
The Suns don't give up easy shots, but they do generate easy ones on the other end.
The Suns' play this year perfectly mirrors the preseason rhetoric of the new GM, coach and defensive coordinator. When they were hired, they talked about a fast offense and stingy defense. But usually, offseason talk of shakeups and scheme changes result in more talk than action. Except this time it's actually happening.
That the Phoenix Suns are just 7-6 overall is an indictment of their late-game offensive execution in the half court and lack of a closer, yet they are one of the only teams in the league to hold a fourth quarter lead in 12 of their first 13 games.
How are the Suns doing it? With an 8th-ranked defense that defends the three-point line and rim at a high level, and an opportunistic offense that leads the league in fast-break points, is 9th in three-point attempts and 11th in three-point percentage (37.3%).
Coach Hornacek wanted the team to take more efficient shots - from the three-point line and at the rim, rather than mid range. The reason being that conversion rates are higher the closer you are to the rim, and that the higher points behind the arc makes up for that lower shooting % so far out. Everything in the middle is a waste of time.
League averages in the 2013-14 season:
Clearly, there's more value in shots at the rim or from behind the 3-point line. Hornacek had the right idea, of course. And so far, the results are very promising.
The Suns are a small team, but they have already:
"When you look at the good teams," Hornacek said over the summer, exclusively to Bright Side. "They either have the shot or they're creating something for somebody else. Consequently, they'll get more open looks which will help their percentages. I think that every guy that you saw on this team last year can have a better shooting percentage in the coming year."
Evidence of this actually happening, as shown in this chart. Of the players in Suns' regular rotation, seven of them were in the NBA last year. Only Ish Smith has seen a drop in shooting percentage.
Many of the team's close shots are thanks to the league-leading fast break scoring team that feeds on back court steals that create fast break points at the rim. Otherwise, the Suns are very pedestrian in the half-court as teams pack the paint to stop Bledsoe and Dragic and don't have a quality post-up presence down low.
Still, the coaching staff works to maximize what they have. The Suns have the league's 8th-ranked "Effective" field goal % and "True" shooting % (which give credit to 3-pointers over 2-pointers) thanks to the heaving diet of fast breaks and three-pointers.
"When we look at things now with analytics, you see that the effective field goal percentages are 51%," Hornacek said in an exclusive interview with Bright Side over the summer, in preparation for the season. "That's why a bunch of these teams are shooting a ton of threes because they get more value for their shot."
The key to this offense has been the success of the three-point shot. The point guards often drive to the hole to draw the defense, and then pass the ball back to the weak side for an open three behind the backs of the defenders. Dragic and Bledsoe are very quick and good at scoring near the rim, forcing the defense to adjust.
But all of this is moot if the guys can't make the three pointers.
This season, the "tanking" Suns have made 10+ three-pointers in each of their last five games, and made 10+ 3s seven times already in 13 games overall for a season average of 37.2% (9th overall) on 9.6 makes a game. Last year, by contrast, the Suns only made 10+ three pointers fives times all year, sinking only 32% of their tries.
But while the Suns are working toward more efficient shots, they are turning the ball over at an alarming rate which hurts their offensive results (just 17th in points per possession, which includes those that end in turnovers).
If the Suns could cut down their turnovers, their offense could be even more effective just by doing what they are already doing today.
The scheme is clearly working.
"If you don't take a good shot on offense, it's going to hurt you on defense," assistant coach and defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi said to Bright Side before the season. "Likewise, if you don't play good defense, you're going to get a worse shot on offense."
It's the defense that has carried the Suns this year, grounded in defending the three point line and the rim. The very shots that the Suns want to take are the shots the Suns want to stop the other team from taking (and making) as well.
"The team that gets the most easy shots is the one that wins," Longabardi said. "So your job on defense is to make it hard for the other team to score."
Seems elementary, right? Defend the shots you don't want them to take while leaving the bad shots open. Boston did that for the last several years, and now the Suns are doing it behind Longabardi's schemes.
Last year, however, the Suns were dead last in three point field goal defense (.388) and tied for 25th in eFG% (.512) against. They limited the opponents' three-point attempts okay (4th in league, allowing only 17.9 per game), but their poor rotations left those shots wide, wide open.
After allowing five of their first 13 opponents to shoot better than 50% in a game, this year's Suns have not allowed any of their opponents this season to exceed that mark.
Asked about the difference between last year and this year, in terms of attention to defense in practice, P.J. Tucker calls it "night and day".
These Suns are not the most talented set of players to ever wear Suns uniforms. There is not a multi-time All-Star on the roster, and their best two players have shared the court only four times in 13 games. They are inexperienced, with each man playing a bigger role than they've ever played before.
But these Suns are buying into a great scheme, orchestrated by the Suns coaching staff, and playing as hard as they can.
The results speak for themselves: top 10 defense + opportunistic, fast break offense = more success than expected.
After last night's win against Utah, the 9-7 Phoenix Suns now boast a better offense (8th in the NBA) than defense (12th) for the first time this season. And coach Hornacek's goal of 103 points per game may yet come true - the Suns have scored 105.1 over the last 7 games.
It took nearly a month, but a tried and true 45-year franchise formula has materialized again - for the first time this season, the Phoenix Suns offense looks better than it's defense.
In what's turning out to be a continuing series on the Suns' offense and defense, today we focus on a recent trend that may continue all season long.
Both the new GM Ryan McDonough and coach Jeff Hornacek said all summer that they wanted the Suns to return to the franchise's roots of fast-paced, exciting offensive basketball with enough stops to fuel the onslaught.
Due to a new scheme and nagging injuries to top point guard starters, the Suns stumbled out of the gate on the offensive end this season with middle-of-the-pack results. A strong defense, coupled with opportunistic fast breaks (league leading 20+ point per game) helped the Suns remain respectable, but the half-court offense struggled mightily to produce points.
What fueled the team was a scrappy defense that defended the three-point line and rim with
aplomb aplum (pun intended, thankyouverymuch) that ranked in the league's top 5 for the first several games en route to a 5-2 start.
For a while there, that looked like the Suns' formula for success this season: a defense that propped up the offense. Not exactly what the coach and GM ordered, but it was working.
NBA.com/stats has the details:
Most evident in the last two games, against the league's 20th (Portland) and 29th (Utah) ranked defenses, the half-court offense is starting to hum. They still get the fast breaks, but now can score in any situation.
It's the defense that's taking a step back. During the last five games, in which the Suns have won three of four on the road and their only home game, the Suns have given up a lot of points. They're just hidden by the improved offense and wider winning margins.
You can, and should, argue sample size. Four of those five games were on the road, and teams always have better offense on their home court. Yet Charlotte, Orlando and Utah - the three road wins - had three of the league's worst offenses, while Portland and Miami boast two of the best.
Sample size? Sure.
But still, the "eyeball" evidence was there last night against Utah. The Suns played hard, but their defense was less effective than it has been earlier in the season. The Suns still haven't given up a 50% game this season to the opponent, but Utah shot 48% last night, and Miami shot 49% earlier this week.
At the same time, the offense - one of the most efficient schemes in the league - is clicking on all cylinders and will only get more effective with Bledsoe back in the lineup. Point guard Goran Dragic is averaging 20 and 10 in his last 5 games running the offense, and Bledsoe scored 19 points in 27 minutes last night as the off guard (with Dragic) and backup point.
This might be the beginning of a season-long trend that mirrors the Suns' entire franchise history: a high-scoring offense coupled with a just-good-enough defense.
And Jeff Hornacek's goal of 103 points per game may yet come true. They have scored 105.1 per game over the last seven games.
The Jazz put up a fight both early and late, but the Suns were simply the better team and that played out over the course of the full 48 minutes. The result was a 112-101 win by the Suns as Eric Bledsoe returned to the court after missing the last six games.
The Suns got off to a slow start, but once they weathered that initial storm it was all Phoenix as the Suns cruised to a 112-101 victory. The Jazz put up a fight in the fourth quarter, but the deficit was too muh for them to overcome. Eric Bledsoe returned after missing six games and made his presence felt, while Markieff Morris was dominant off the bench to lead the six Suns in double-figures. Marvin Williams came out of nowhere to have a big game for the Jazz, but it wasn't nearly enough.
Utah came out ready to play, while the Suns did not. The result was a 9-0 start for the Jazz. However, Phoenix responded with 11 of the next 13 points (nine of which were scored by Goran Dragic) to tie the game a little more than four minutes in.
The two teams traded buckets for the next few minutes until Phoenix took control with three 3-pointers (two by Gerald Green and one by Channing Frye) to go ahead 25-20.Markieff Morris checked in and scored almost instantly, foreshadowing what was to come, and then Eric Bledsoe made his first appearance with just under three minutes left in the quarter, replacing Goran Dragic.
Unfortunately, the Suns' offense sputtered without Dragic, as they managed just a layup and pair of Morris free throws in the final three minutes while Utah ripped off nine points of their own to take a 33-31 lead after one.
The teams traded baskets for the first half of the second quarter, and Phoenix held a 44-43 lead at the midway point. Then the Suns stepped it up and closed out the half on a very balanced 18-8 run with four different Suns doing the damage. Phoenix led 62-51 at halftime.
Phoenix built up the lead even more with a 33-27 third quarter, including a big 10-point period by Keef Morris. By the end of the quarter, the Suns had nearly hung 100 on the Jazz and led 95-78.
Utah fought back in the fourth quarter, but the hole was too deep to dig out of and they never got closer than 11 and the Suns cruised to a 112-101 victory.
Dave just wrote about how focused the Suns have been on taking 3-pointers, but tonight it was their work inside the arc that led to victory. The Suns were only 8-25 from deep, but they made up for it by shooting 33-50 from two and getting to the free-throw line 25 times (hitting 22).